Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Arab problem with Iran


Iran and the US reached an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. President Obama presented the Iranian deal as the triumph of diplomacy.

       There is a misconception that Arab countries wanted the US to remain in conflict with Iran. Having traveled in the Arab Gulf area in the summer, the impression I have is that Arab Gulf governments and people want the region to be normal. They want Iran to be a normal country with whom they can have normal relations. The issue in the Arab Gulf media coverage of the Iranian-US negotiations was not whether a nuclear deal is good or bad, the issue was Iran’s behavior in the Middle East and whether Iran is going to use the billions of dollars to continue to stir the sectarian pot with US acquiescence or with the US turning a blind eye.

       An Arab Gulf country, Oman, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), played a key role in providing a forum for the US and Iran to meet and start the process that led to the agreement. Arab newspaper commentators, in Oman and in the other Arab Gulf countries, almost unanimously wanted the American-Iranian talks to succeed but were worried that President Obama was not taking their interests into account.

       Arabs want Iran to stop its reckless business of the export of its revolution, a so- called revolution that has long fizzled in Iran itself but is surviving on brutal force. The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought into the region a zealous regime intent on spreading its ideology. That project was stalled by the 1980-1988 Arab-Iranian war spearheaded by Iraq from the Arab side. The first Gulf war was started by Iran against Iraq and Iraq, despite all odds, won the war with the Iranian regime. Iran accepted defeat. That war had a steep cost in lives and treasure. 

While the Iranian regime has an ideology that it wants to export, the Arab Gulf countries are status quo countries.  It is true that Saudi Arabia funds projects that advance its view what is orthodox Islam and counters what Salafi Muslims consider innovation in religion. However, such projects are a far cry from the ideology of the Welayat al Faqih that Iran wants to spread in a Muslim world that is 90% Sunni Muslim and finds core beliefs of the Twelver Shiites anathema to orthodox Islam as practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world. Iran’s version of Twelver Shiism puts the leader of Iran, the Wali al Faqih, at the center with believers in that ideology owing complete and total allegiance to the infallible Iranian leader in all matters spiritual and secular. This business of exporting this ideology to Sunni- majority countries is understandably deeply troubling to leaders of Sunni- majority countries. Iran is in the business of exporting a highly politicized form of Twelver Shiism that demands complete and total loyalty of the convert to Iran.

In an opinion column entitled “Can Iran Change?” in The New York Times of January 19, 2016, the Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubair presented a concise and precise summary of Iranian wrongs over the years. Mr. al Jubair wrote:
 “THE world is watching Iran for signs of change, hoping it will evolve from a rogue revolutionary state into a respectable member of the international community. But Iran, rather than confronting the isolation it has created for itself, opts to obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by leveling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is important to understand why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are committed to resisting Iranian expansion and responding forcefully to Iran’s acts of aggression. The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution. The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting the revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. Iran or its proxies have been blamed for terrorist attacks around the world, including the bombings of the United States Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and the assassinations in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. And by some estimates Iranian-backed forces have killed over 1,100 American troops in Iraq since 2003.”

          It is not only Saudi Arabia that accuses Iran of stirring the sectarian pot. President Obama himself also accused Iran of a destructive role in the region that exacerbates sectarian tensions. However, Obama said that that reprehensible behavior should not be a factor in the nuclear negotiations. In effect, Obama held that if Iran is harming America’s Arab allies in the Arab Gulf it is ok as long as Iran’s nuclear program is neutered to make the Israelis feel safer. President Obama’s callous indifference to the interests of America’s Arab allies in the Arab Gulf is seen by Gulf Arabs as a betrayal of a decades’ old friendship.

Is Iran going to change? Unlikely. It has now billions more of dollars to spread its mischief in the Arab and Muslim world further exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions. The Economist of January 16, 2016 summarized this reality:

“Yet, just as critics of the deal are wrong to describe it as a disaster in which Iran got everything it wanted, its supporters (including this newspaper) need to be realistic about it, too. The smooth progress towards Implementation Day is largely because the president, Hassan Rohani, and Mr Zarif are desperate to get sanctions lifted. They want to see $100 billion of Iranian assets unfrozen before parliamentary elections next month, in which they hope their faction will oust some of the hardliners who oppose them. Although both back greater engagement with the West for economic reasons (and appear to have the conditional support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei), nothing else about Iran’s behaviour shows the slightest sign of change. It still hangs gay people, locks up dissidents and stokes sectarian conflict around the Middle East, most destructively in Syria.”

           The Economist’s reporting on Iran’s Yemeni proxy the Houthis' behavior brings to mind the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian children wore around their necks “keys to paradise”:

“Houthi fighters head to battle carrying charms, such as keys and visas to paradise. Their preachers on satellite television call for re-establishing Zaydi rule across the border, not just over the three border provinces the Al Sauds seized in 1934 but even over Mecca farther north.”

On Iran, there is no room for optimism.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

AHRC's statement on the Flint and Detroit water crises

The Flint and Detroit water crises are a violation of Michigan citizens' human right to water:
Water is a basic necessity, not a market commodity or luxury

The American Human Council (AHRC-USA) joins the rest of the human rights community in expressing its deep concern over the city of Flint's water crisis and its impact on the citizens of Flint. The Flint water crisis is a serious public safety concern that merits serious and urgent attention. The root cause of the crisis should be identified and those responsible need to be held accountable.

The Flint water crisis is part of a bigger water crisis in Michigan. The ongoing Detroit water issue and the thousands of poor residents who could not afford to pay for the water services are left without water, a most basic human necessity.
Water is not just another market commodity, it is a public good and a public service of vital importance. This importance was recognized by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 641292 passed on 28 July 2010 designating water and sanitation as human rights. A human being cannot enjoy all the other human rights they have unless they have access to clean and affordable water. As identified by the UN, this water has to be "sufficient," "safe," "acceptable," "physically accessible" and "affordable." The crises in Flint and Detroit indicate that the State of Michigan is not paying enough attention to water as a human right to a significant number of Michigan citizens.
AHRC calls upon all Michigan elected officials to rise above partisanship and deal with this most basic of human right. There is also the hazardous waste disposal issue that should be handled fairly. AHRC calls upon the federal, state and local government to work together to bring these crises to a resolution.

"We are deeply troubled that the great State of Michigan is not providing all its citizens with access to safe and affordable water," stated Imad Hamad, AHRC Executive director. "Water is not a fungible good, it is a common good and a public service, whether one is rich or poor, they have the human right of access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water- all goals set by the UN and applicable to all the nations on earth," added Hamad.
For more on the UN and the human right to water and sanitation,  
please visit: 

On Fairuz and Al Shira'a's Hasan Sabra

Al Shira'a's controversial cover story on Fairuz

Hasan Sabra whose Al Shira''a magazine broke the story that led to the Irangate saga
Images from the Palestinian camp Tel Zaater

An archiac Arabic word causes a Lebanese show to descend into name calling: Fairuz, Lebanese New TV and Al Shira’a

In Lebanese Al Shira’a magazine of December 14, 2015, publisher Hasan Sabra wrote an article critical of Lebanese icon Fairuz. Fairuz is the most famous Lebanese singer of all time and is seen by many as a national symbol that unites Lebanese of all backgrounds. Sabra said that he is not critical of Fairuz the singer but of Fairuz the person about whom the media should write honestly. Sabra said that people need to know celebrities for who they are- as human beings that have flaws. Sabra made five points in his magazine article:

1.   Fairuz loves money and is stingy
2.   Fairuz does not care for people/hates people
3.   Fairuz is a habitual alcohol drinker
4.   Fairuz is a co-conspirator of Syria’s Asad. During the 1970s siege of the Palestinian Tal el Za’atar refugee camp, Syrian military and intelligence officers met in her house plotting the attack on the camp that housed Palestinian refugees and poor Lebanese Muslims. This was previously revealed in 2012 by Fairuz’s son Zeiayd Rahbani in an interview with Ghassan Ben Jiddo of Al Mayadeen TV. Fairuz did not deny it.
5.   Faiurz has no friends and hates journalists.

The article upset many people in Lebanon. Many Lebanese were outraged that Sabra dared to speak ill of Fairuz. Interestingly, most of the objecting voices focused on the habitual- drinking claim.  Alshiraa, needless to say, is no stranger to controversy. Al Shira’a is the Lebanese magazine that broke the story that led to the Irangate scandal. The Irangate scandal involved Israeli weapons  sold to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran to be used against Iraq with the proceeds going to the Nicaraguan Contras in violation of American law. The scandal rocked the Reagan administration and shocked many in the Arab world that Iran was buying weapons from Israel to fight its war with Iraq, a war that was started by Iran, lasted 8 years, and was won by Iraq .

On December 14, Lebanese news show lilnasher, For Publication, with Rima Karaki invited Sabra to respond to questions regarding his controversial article on Fairuz.  The host and the two guests were against Sabra, prepared for a verbal lynching of the man. There was not even a semblance of balance from the host or her two guests- not unusual behavior from the TV station that many accuse of habitual incitement against Palestinians and others.  The two guests were media personalities, the controversial, and some say scandalous, Nidal Ahmadieh and a lesser known journalist, Pierre Abi Saab.

The show descended into a shameless mob attack on Sabra. As if that was not bad enough, it descended into the guests, knowingly or unknowingly, insulting Islam and Muslims as well. The two guests took issue with a word that Sabra used. Sabra said that Fairuz is a habitual alcohol drinker using an Arabic word used in classical Arabic, particularly Islamic commentary about alcohol- تعاقر.  The word simply means habitually use.  The Christian Lebanese Abi Saab seems not have understood the word, just taking it as negative, said the article belongs in the trash can and called the words low life/despicable. Abi Saab’s language caused Sabra, who realized he was invited to be verbally attacked and insulted, to get into verbal combat mode and the show descended into a shouting match. Ahmadieh said that the Arabic word is an ISIS word and that she is a Druze and the Druze drink alcohol. Ahmadieh also claimed that drinking is a “Lebanese tradition” and that it should not be considered shameful.   Ahmadieh, who wore a pin in solidarity with the Hizbullah TV station al Manar that was banned from Arabsat, oddly, stated that “all Lebanese” drink alcohol with their meals. She restated her point for emphasis stating that “Arabs should know that all Lebanese drink. Alcohol is on all Lebanese dining tables.” “This is our culture” she asserted.  This is an odd assertion from a woman wearing the Hizbullah- TV Al Manar station pin, logically then, either the Hizbullah station Al Manar employees drink alcohol or they are not real Lebanese. In addition, even for Ahmadieh’s Druze community, religious Druze do not drink alcohol, are the religious Druze not authentic Lebanese? In defending one Lebanese woman, Fairuz, Ahmadieh ended up insulting a major segment of the Lebanese population whose national identity became questionable because they simply do not drink alcohol. Ahmadieh’s criticism of Sabra is curious since she is even more controversial, way more controversial with scandalous coverage of entertainer and singers, than Sabra with a steady diet of scandalous news, many exaggerations if not outright lies, about celebrities.

Ahmadieh protested that the Arabic word is a word from “ISIS dictionary, from the killers of children.” Abi Saab said that Sabra should have just said she drinks alcohol. ISIS, even though Sabra himself is a secular Arab nationalist Shiite Muslim, strangely, became the center of the discussion for the two Shiites, one Christian and one Druze.  Ahmadieh, in a silly and bizarre exaggeration beyond all bounds, claimed that Fairuz is her goddess and that she has “no memory/existence without her.” Sabra, all of a sudden, turned out clearly to be the most rational person in the verbal milieu.

Abi Saab and Ahmadieh have the right to defend Fairuz and to disagree with Sabra. The trouble is that Abi Saab and Sabra, knowingly or unknowingly, also insulted Islam and Muslims. Islam forbids alcohol use for Muslims and does not mince words on alcohol usage. The word Sabra used is a negative word but is simply descriptive of a person who drinks habitually and regularly. Whether this is true or not as to Fairuz is another matter. The problem is that the word is in ordinary usage in the Muslim tradition and calling it a Daesh or ISIS word is an insult to the religious tradition and the religious community where the word is regularly used.

In Arab politics, it has become too easy to accuse political adversaries of being like Daesh or Daesh.  ISIS disapproves of alcohol use, but so do all Muslim traditions and some Christian traditions as well. This does not make them ISIS as well. ISIS uses imagery and verses from the Islamic tradition, does that make all the Islamic tradition a Daesh tradition?

I support Sabra's right to write freely about Fairuz and others. If he had defamed her, she could have sued him for defamation. It is much easier to win such a suit in Lebanon than in the US. My support of Sabra does not mean I dislike Fairuz. I grew up listening to Muslim Lebanese radio that started the day with Koran reading, Fairuz then the news. 
However, Fairuz is not an idol and the Tel Zaater part of the story is the most scandalous, not the alcohol part.

- The al Shiraa article:
-The New TV program:
-Interview with Zeiyad Rahbani on the issue of the Syrians in Fairuz’s apartment during the Tal el Zaatar siege: